"That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest."
- Henry David Thoreau, 1856
Environmentalists worldwide have been wringing their hands this week with the introduction of the new Tata Nano, a $2500 "people's car" intended to make car ownership affordable to India's burgeoning middle class.
So will 1 billion new motorists in India push the world's carbon-soaked atmosphere over the brink? How could those third-world nations be so inconsiderate?
I'm actually not that concerned about the Nano. I do think that this car is going to cause big problems in India: as thousands of new and inexperienced drivers take to streets that are already congested to the point of uselessness, and as those thousands of newly-minted members of the middle class sink a huge portion of their incomes into cars - a depreciating asset - instead of into their homes, education, medicine, or even safe drinking water.
But who are we to say that India shouldn't drive? Their middle class is merely following the lousy example we've set. We should actually be heartened by the fact that the Nano is remarkably fuel-efficient, and its engine will generate less pollution than most of the three-wheeled rickshaws and two-stroke motor scooters it's intended to replace.
In fact, as this NY Times article attests, the Nano is actually a model of automotive efficiency and frugality: no power steering, no power windows, no air bags or antilock brakes, one windshield wiper instead of two. Stripping out everything they didn't need allowed Tata's engineers to reduce material costs and build a car light enough to run on a tiny 35 horsepower engine (by comparison, this American couch-potato lawnmower runs on a 25 horsepower engine). This is almost the platonic ideal of an automobile: a car stripped down to its barest essence.
So as world environmental crises go, the Nano has got nothing on the hundreds of new coal power plants that China is building to keep our Wal-Mart shelves full of cheap plastic crap. Even if millions of people do embrace the Nano, India will have to respond with even tighter pollution rules (in fact, new auto regulations are already on their way), congestion charges for crowded city streets, and other measures to reduce driving.
Plus, like their Chinese counterparts, new Indian motorists are likely to drive up the global price of gasoline even further - and that should help the developed world trade in our own autos for something a little more frugal.